NBA

Sacramento Kings suddenly grinding out wins, but will their turnaround last?

By Sports Desk February 11, 2021

Three weeks ago, it appeared this season was shaping up to be like each of the previous 14 for the Sacramento Kings.

A 115-96 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 20 marked the sixth defeat in seven games for the Kings and dropped their record to 5-10 – third worst in the Western Conference.

A month into the season and it was already looking like Sacramento would match the Clippers' dubious record of 15 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth from 1976-77 to 1990-91 for the longest playoff drought in NBA history.

Now one-third of the way into their season, however, the Kings have pulled within a half-game of the eighth-placed Golden State Warriors in the West on the heels of a 7-2 stretch. on Friday night, they take on the Orlando Magic.

The turnaround began two nights after the blowout loss to the Clippers with a 103-94 victory over the New York Knicks. The Kings' performance that night was emblematic of how they've managed to climb back into the playoff picture, but is their formula for winning sustainable?

Against the Knicks, the Kings found themselves up 89-87 with just under four minutes remaining after New York went on an 8-0 run. Sacramento then went on a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Tyrese Haliburton three-pointer with 2:35 to play to put the game away.

The Kings ended up scoring 14 of the game's final 21 points, and over the next few weeks displayed a proficiency for closing out tight games.

Prior to January 22, the Kings had the NBA's third-worst fourth-quarter point differential at minus-2.8 while ranking 23rd in fourth-quarter scoring with an average of 25.5 points. Since then, they are averaging 28.1 points over the final 12 minutes of games.

It's been in the game's final moments, however, that the Kings have really excelled. Their 10.0-scoring average in the final three minutes since January 22 is the best in the NBA.

The Kings are finding ways to grind out victories and have a league-high eight wins this season by five points or less, but this typically is not a blueprint for success in the NBA.

The Kings' 5.9-point differential in their wins is the lowest in the NBA, and no team have finished a season with a point differential of less than 6.0 in their victories since 2005-06, when the Portland Trail Blazers were at 5.6 and the Atlanta Hawks were at 5.8. Sacramento, however, do not want to be too closely linked to those teams, as Portland were a league-worst 21-61 while Atlanta were not much better at 26-56.

Winning close games rarely leads to long-term success, seeing as only one team in the last 30 years have reached the playoffs while having a point differential of less than 8.0 in their wins – the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.8.

In fact, in NBA history only two teams have reached the playoffs while outscoring their opponents by fewer than 7.0 points in their wins and those instances came well before man even walked on the Moon – the 1954-55 Rochester Royals at 6.6 and the 1948-49 St Louis Bombers at 6.8.

Grinding out wins over the long haul of a full season takes its toll and it may have caught up with the Kings in their last time on the court.

In Tuesday's 119-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Kings seemed to tire down the stretch, missing seven straight shots over a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter as the Sixers went on a 10-0 run to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead with just over four and a half minutes to play.

Sacramento were playing for the third time in four days, so they were playing on tired legs, but it's also possible fatigue was setting in because each of their previous three games went down to the wire and the minutes are piling up for their stars.

De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield each played the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday and have regularly been playing in crunch time.

Since January 22, the Kings have four players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes – Haliburton (1st, 10.7), Fox (11th, 9.9), Hield (12th, 9.7) and Harrison Barnes (18th, 9.4).

The Nets are the only other team to have more than two players ranking in the top 20 in fourth-quarter minutes in that period.

Sacramento have counted on Fox down the stretch, as his 11 field-goal attempts in late and close situations since January 22 trails only the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (15) and the Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul (13) for the most in the NBA. Late and close situations here are defined as the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.

Fox's shots, however, weren't falling on Tuesday.

Over a five-game stretch from January 30 to February 7, Fox led the league with an average of 13.2 fourth-quarter points (minimum three games) while shooting 57.8 per cent. He misfired on 10 of 13 shots, though, while scoring seven points in Tuesday’s fourth quarter.

Haliburton's fourth quarter – as well as his third quarter for that matter – was even more forgettable. His final points on Tuesday came on a three-pointer with 2:00 remaining before halftime.

It was a sub-par showing for someone who is shooting at a staggering clip when the game moves to the fourth quarter.

The 20-year-old rookie is making 60.6 per cent (40-of-66) on all fourth-quarter shots – tied for fourth in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 109 players with at least 50 shot attempts in the fourth – and has been connecting at an even higher percentage from beyond the arc.

Shooting an absurd 61.5 per cent on three-pointers (24-of-39) in the fourth quarter, Haliburton is on track to become the only player seeing regular minutes to shoot at least 60 per cent from deep in the final quarter in the last 15 seasons. Since 2005-06, Kyle Korver for the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks has the highest fourth-quarter shooting percentage on three-pointers at 57.4, among players with at least 50 3-point attempts.

Haliburton has also made seven clutch three-pointers this season to trail only James (11), the Charlotte Hornets' Devonte’ Graham (eight) and the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (eight) for most in the league. Here, clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when a game is within six points.

Considering Haliburton is knocking down 44.1 per cent of his shots in the game's first three quarters, his fourth-quarter shooting has been especially baffling. His increase in shooting of 16.5 per cent from the first three quarters to the fourth is the biggest in the NBA this season (minimum 125 field goal attempts in first three quarters and 50 in fourth).

His shooting has been exceptional but hitting a rookie wall could be a concern. Tuesday marked the 22nd game of the season for Haliburton – the exact same number of games he played all of last season collegiately at Iowa State.

The fourth-quarter exploits of Haliburton and Fox have played a big role in Sacramento's climb in the standings, but the climb is just beginning. The season is only a little more than seven weeks old and time will tell if the Kings have the strength to continue their playoff push.

Related items

  • Denmark thinking about Eriksen 'all the way' as Hjulmand revels in magical night Denmark thinking about Eriksen 'all the way' as Hjulmand revels in magical night

    Kasper Hjulmand said Denmark after thinking about Christian Eriksen "all the way" as the head coach revelled in the nation's magical night at Euro 2020.

    Denmark remarkably booked their place in the last 16 of Euro 2020 with a stirring 4-1 win over Russia in Copenhagen on Monday, setting up a showdown against Wales.

    After losing 1-0 to Finland – a game overshadowed by the cardiac arrest suffered by star midfielder Eriksen – and 2-1 to star-studded Belgium, Denmark's hopes of making the knockout stages were slim before the clash at the Parken Stadium. 

    But Denmark produced a devastating performance to open their account at Euro 2020 and seal second spot in Group B thanks to goals from Mikkel Damsgaard, Yussuf Poulsen, Andreas Christensen and Joakim Maehle.

    Denmark became the first team in European Championship history to reach the knockout stages of the competition having lost their first two group-stage games, while it also marked the first time Denmark had scored four goals in a major tournament game since a 4-1 victory over Nigeria at the 1998 World Cup.

    "What a night. We hoped that it would be a magic night at Parken," Hjulmand told reporters. "I want to start by saying thank you to all the people who have been supporting us and have shown so much love.

    "I don't think it would have been possible without all the support. I could feel that it really affected the players, so thank you so much for all the support. It means the world to us.

    "The motivation, the team spirit and the friendship among the players were amazing. We played three games at a very high level, and if anyone deserves this, it's our players. I can't imagine how they managed to come back from what they went through, so a big credit to the boys. Thanks a lot for the support we've got from the whole of Denmark.

    "I think it helps the team and hopefully it gives the country some good moments. It's something we all love, so thank you and a huge congratulations to the boys. It's really awesome."

    Hjulmand added: "I have to say that the team spirit we have, and how everyone contributes, is amazing. And then mixing it up with amazing performances is just fantastic.

    "AC [Andreas Christensen] is one of the best defenders out there. He has everything that a player needs. Joakim [Maehle], I don't know if he is still running out there. He just runs. He's very, very strong. He runs a lot. I don't know what he's taking, but he runs a lot. He manages the left side, but that's of course with more players. That's part of the team spirit, and people who didn't get to play today, I respect them a lot. I respect the people who did contribute on the pitch, the technical staff.

    "It's hard to describe what this team has been through in the past four weeks. We're thinking about Christian [Eriksen] all the way, and Wales are a very tough opponent. They came very far last time. They have really great players, so I think it's going to a very equal game. They're very flexible, they change their strategies and their positions, so it's going to be hard to know what to expect from that time.

    "It's just like with ourselves. We started a little weakly, but we moved AC and changed a few positions, and that's what Wales do a lot. It's going to be a very interesting and equal game."

    Russia boss Stanislav Cherchesov said: "I thanked the guys for what they've done. They were up for this game but it just didn't go our way. We could have taken our chances in the first half but didn't, then conceded a goal from a half-chance and couldn't get back in the game. We have to think about all of this and move forward."

  • NBA playoffs 2021: Clippers' Kawhi remains sidelined for Game 2 against Suns NBA playoffs 2021: Clippers' Kawhi remains sidelined for Game 2 against Suns

    The Los Angeles Clippers will again be without superstar Kawhi Leonard for Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals due to a sprained right knee.

    Leonard sat out the series-opening loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, having suffered a knee injury in Game 4 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

    Clippers forward Leonard will now miss his fourth consecutive game – Tuesday's NBA playoff clash with the Suns in Phoenix, head coach Tyronn Lue confirmed.

    "He just stays engaged," Lue said on Monday. "He likes to know the adjustments we're going to make. He likes to know the game plan so when he watches the game, he can understand what we're doing good and doing bad, and let the coaches know, let the players know.

    "He's very engaged. Even though he's back home rehabbing, he's still locked in and tuned in."

    On keeping Leonard involved while sidelined, Lue added: "Just being able to hold guys accountable, talking to guys, talking to the players, what we need to do better on what he sees. If he knows the game plan, then he can definitely do that.

    "So he's talked to the guys every day, as well, not just the coaching staff. He's very engaged and that's what you need from your players. He's locked in and still in tune."

    In this season's playoffs, two-time NBA champion Leonard has been averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists for the fourth-seeded Clippers.

  • 76ers have plan to help beleaguered Simmons amid trade talk – Rivers 76ers have plan to help beleaguered Simmons amid trade talk – Rivers

    Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said the franchise have a plan to address Ben Simmons' shooting woes as speculation over the embattled All-Star's future intensifies.

    Simmons was subjected to boos after the top-seeded 76ers crashed out of the NBA playoffs in the Eastern Conference semi-finals following a shock 103-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 on Sunday.

    Philadelphia fans vented their frustration after Simmons attempted just four shots for five points in the series decider, while tallying 13 assists and eight rebounds against the fifth-seeded Hawks.

    Simmons also passed on a wide-open dunk during the closing stages against the Hawks, instead passing to Matisse Thybulle – who was fouled and made just one of the two free throws.

    Amid trade rumours after Simmons was reportedly at the centre of Philadelphia's attempts to acquire James Harden in January before the former MVP was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets by the Houston Rockets, Rivers discussed the Australian.

    "I believe, without going into detail with what we're doing, I believe we know what the right work is, and the right type of work, and the right way to do it," Rivers told reporters on Monday when asked why this offseason will be different for Simmons.

    "You can do the work all the time. But if it's not done in the right way and the right type of work, you may not improve.

    "After being here for a year, I really do believe we've identified what and how, and now we have to do the do part.

    "We have to work to do it. It's not going to be an easy job. But it's definitely a job that Ben can do."

    It comes after Rivers casted doubt over Simmons' future with the 76ers following another failed run at a first NBA championship since 1983.

    The debate around Simmons – an elite defender and creator – centres on his offense or lack thereof, with the 76ers often handicapped by his unwillingness to shoot.

    Simmons' field-goal percentage has regressed, dropping from 58.0 in 2019-20 to 55.7 this season – he only managed worse in his 2017-18 rookie campaign (54.5).

    The 24-year-old only averaged 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It is the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career low 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

    Asked if he thought Simmons could be a guard on a championship team, Rivers told reporters post-game: "I don't know the answer to that right now.

    "I don't know. He struggled from the free throw line and that became a factor in the series. There's no doubt about that. Still believe in him.

    "But, we have work to do. We're gonna have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in, and go from there."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.